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Dr. Sable Chamberlin had begun to detest her telephone's ring tone. Not only did she hate the harsh sound, but the ring often summoned her to the Boswell Community Hospital for an emergency. Being on call sixty hours a week had gotten old. She wasn't on call this evening, however; she was in mourning.
She slid the cordless receiver from the stand on the counter and pressed the answer button, glancing through her kitchen window at the lightning over the company town of Freemont, Oklahoma. It seemed much later than six o'clock on this February evening.
"Sable, that you?" The voice of her elderly friend, Noah Erwin, held comfort.
"How'd the funeral go?"
She closed her eyes, tears still close. Her grandfather, Josiah Kessinger, had been the reason for her move to Freemont from her home in the Missouri Ozarks.
"It went, Noah."
"Especially the accusations against him."
"All false," Noah said.
"I know." Her grandfather's death on Monday had coincided with a rumor of fraud. Sable had also been implicated in the alleged deception. Since she and her grandfather weren't natives of this tightly knit mining community, they made easy targets, it seemed.
"You just get back to town?" Noah asked.
"Yes, I have a shift tomorrow." Saturday was a busy day at the clinic. "What's up?"
"I have a package that was sent to you in care of my address. I'd bring it to you, but my truck's in for repairs."
"It's his writing. No name on the return address, but it's stamped Eagle Rock, Missouri."
"Would you open it, please?" Sable asked. "If it's something important, I'll drive out."
She heard a rippingsound. Noah said something under his breath, and then paused. The pause became a protracted silence.
"Lord help us all," he murmured.
Noah continued to mutter as paper rustled. Sable didn't rush him. He'd been her patient since her second day on the job at the Freemont clinic. He'd also become the most important influence in her life here. Because of Noah, she and Grandpa had found hope for the futureand a whole new reason for living.
"Sable, you'd better come on out," Noah said at last.
"Something's up. I knew Josiah had a lot on his mind, but the old rascal never was much for sharing his thoughts."
"What is it?"
"You should see the stuff he's dug up," Noah said. "Papers and letters about dirty deals, pictures, reports."
"Dirty deals? What kind of"
"You might think about packing your bags and heading back to Missouri," Noah said. "Here's one of those sticky notes. Says these are copies. Originals in Missouri. You got any idea where" He broke off.
"Thought I heard something."
"Like what?" This felt increasingly bad.
"Probably the wind. Just get out here, okay? Josiah hinted about spies amongst us, and" He broke off again. "What was that noise?" Silence, then, distantly, "Hello? Who's there?"
She gripped the receiver and took a slow, steady breath. Just the wind.
Noah came back on the line. "Sorry about that. I'm a little jumpy is all."
"I'll call the police."
"No! These notes suggest someone in the sheriff's office is dirty. Murph's got his cell phone on him. I'll call him out, just to be safe."
Paul Murphy, a paramedic at the clinic, was solid and strong. Sable liked and trusted the man.
"I'll be waiting on the porch," Noah said. "See you in about ten."
She grabbed her car keys and billfold from the kitchen counter and pulled on her coat. Noah lived alone in an old farmhouse four miles from town. She rushed outside, locking the door behind her. Instinctively, as she hurried to the car, her hand went up to the old pocket watch she wore on a chain around her neck, an unexpected Christmas gift from her grandfather.
Ever since he'd given her the watch, he'd become more and more secretive. Three weeks ago, he'd told her, "Darlin', if anything happens to me, get out of Oklahoma. Don't look back. This isn't any kind of town for a young lady like you."
Recalling those words, she jumped into her Camaro and backed from the driveway. Soon, maybe she would have more pieces of this puzzle. She hoped they didn't raise more questions.
A flash of lightning illuminated Noah Erwin's sprawling old house. The violent, approaching storm lit the sky, accentuating the darkness in the house. Noah wasn't on the porch waiting for her, as he'd said he would be.
She unlatched the gate, pulled it open with a creak of rusty hinges, and then stepped carefully along the flagstone path. She stopped as another flash of lightning lit the porch and the wide-open doorway.
In that instant, Sable was blasted with shock at the sight of her elderly friend sprawled across the threshold, his body pinned between the door frame and both the heavy oak and screen doors.
With a cry, Sable rushed up the porch steps and fell to her knees at her friend's side. "Noah! Oh, Lord, no!"
More lightning illuminated a pool of blood from a hole in Noah's temple. His glazed eyes held the blank stare of death.
Anguished beyond thought, she felt for a pulse at his throat. Noah's head fell sideways, exposing a mass of blood at the back of his skull. The shooter had completed the job.
Sable felt the porch spin. Numb with shock, she leaned against the door frame as tears blinded her and icy wind whipped her hair across her face.
This was murder. She dashed the tears from her eyes and the hair from her face and cast a frantic look around the shadowed entryway and the living room beyond. Dark shapes lurked in every corner of the huge room. Another flash of lightning cast the sofa and chairs and Noah's old desk in sharp relief.
The storm blocked any other sounds and the wind scattered papers across the foyer. These papers were those the ones Noah had called her about? Terrified of lingering, yet desperate to find out why he had died, she grabbed all the sheets she could find and stuffed them into a pocket of her coat.
The wind broke briefly, and Sable heard a footfall in the darkness near the kitchen door.
Movement! Lightning revealed a man lunging from the shadows. Sable screamed and stumbled backward, tripping over Noah's body. She fell on her side, then scrambled up and away.
The man grabbed her coat sleeve. She screamed again, yanking from his grip, running off the porch toward her car.
Footsteps pounded behind her, splashing mud. She'd never make the car. She broke away and dove into a clump of bushes.
Thorns scraped her hands. She charged through the hedgerow, fighting brambles that clung to her clothes.
Sable fumbled in her pocket for her keys, setting her sights on her car, but her foot caught on a root and she fell. The man grabbed her. She swung around to claw at his face there was no face.
Lightning revealed a ski mask.
A brilliant flash of headlights pierced through the spiny branches of the shrubs. The attacker released her abruptly, swung away, stumbled, broke back through the hedgerow and disappeared into the darkness.
Sable froze, heart pounding, breath coming in hard rasps. The vehicle passed a large SUV. She turned and ran toward her car, but the SUV pulled in behind it, blocking her escape. She plunged into the blackness beyond the driveway.
"Hey!" a man shouted from the vehicle.
Sable staggered over the uneven ground. Again she heard the sound of pursuing footsteps. She reached level ground and raced toward the toolshed. There might be a weapon among the garden tools, maybe a hoe, or
Large, strong hands gripped her shoulders and spun her around, shoving her against the wall of the shed.
She screamed, jerking her knee upward, connecting with something solid.
The man grunted, but held fast.
She raked her nails down the side of his neck, kicked at his legs. "Let go of me!"
Another grunt. "Dr. Chamberlin?" Shocked surprise. "Get away from me!"
"Sable!" He grabbed her by the arms. "Doctor, stop it!" The familiar voice registered. She froze, recognizing the light scent of aftershave, the breadth of his shoulders.
"Doctor, it's me. It's Murph." He groaned in pain.
Relief flooded her, followed by a rising alarm at her frantic resistance. "Murph?" She peered through the shadowy gloom at the face of Paul Murphythe paramedic who had been with the clinic for the past six weeks.
"Oh, Murph, I'm so"
"What happened? Where's Noah?"
She swallowed hard as the first fat drops of rain splashed against her face. "He's on the porch. Oh, Murph, he's dead!"
There was a deep gasp. "He's been murdered." She fought back her own horror. No time. "He called me no more than fifteen minutes ago with"
Murph released her and turned toward the house, sucking in air as if he'd been kicked. "He called me, too."
Sable grabbed his arm. "Murph, don't go up there. He was shot. That had to be his murderer you saw chasing me. That murderer is armed."
Murph looked back at her. "All I saw was you running."
"Your headlights startled him and he ran, but I don't know how far. He could be anywhere and he has a gun. We've got to get away."
There was a loud crackle of thunder, and when the echo died away, Sable heard an approaching siren.
She caught Murph's arm. "That's got to be the police, and Noah warned me not to trust them. We've got to go now. Murph, come on." She released him and raced toward her car. "Get in!"
The siren grew louder as Sable jumped into the car, slammed the door and turned on the key. The motor sprang to life with a rumble. As she put the car into gear, Murph slid in on the passenger side.
The wide tires of the Camaro tore up grass and slung mud. Sable held her breath and pressed the accelerator to the floor-board. The car cleared the bushes at the far end of Noah's front yard just as red flashing lights stained the night sky. Sable didn't switch on her headlights.
She turned onto a straight stretch of road. "So you believe me?"
"Yes. Are you okay? Did that man hurt you?"
"He killed Noah!" She fought tears.
Her ruse with the headlights worked. As the sirens receded, she relaxed her foot on the accelerator, but too soon. Lights hit her rearview mirror. No colors, no siren.
"Someone's following us," she told Murph.
"Just keep driving and get your headlights on or we'll plunge into the canal."
Sable complied, downshifting for a burst of power, bracing herself for the dangerous turn at the edge of the deep, water-filled channel less than a quarter mile ahead.
Despite her speed, the car behind drew closer. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel.
Only a few hundred feet from the curve, the other car accelerated. Sable pressed her right foot to the floorboard and the Camaro responded with another burst of speed.
High beams swung around the curve ahead and into her face. Swerving, Sable realized too late how close she was to the canal. She yanked the steering wheel hard left. The road was too slick. The Camaro slammed against a concrete abutment. Murph's door flew open. Sable screamed.
"We're going over!" Murph grabbed Sable's arm. "Jump!" Sable dived across the seat toward the open door. The car careened off the blacktop and plummeted toward the water.
Pushing free from the car, Sable and Murph plunged into the icy wet blackness.